Books

A Master Memoirist Faces the Midlife Blues

A conversation with Michel Rabagliati, cartoonist of the Paul books.

A black-and-white cartoon of a middle-aged man walking in his backyard.
Drawn & Quarterly

Back in 2014, I called the Quebecois cartoonist Michel Rabagliati my favorite memoirist. Over the course of seven books, translated from the French and published by small Canadian presses, Rabagliati’s understated comics tell the story of his own life through his alter ego Paul, from his childhood in the Scouts to the maturity of marriage, child-raising, and saying goodbye to ailing parents.

Throughout his career, Rabagliati has always been forthright about his own failures and disappointments, even as he’s made Paul and his family people that readers love. But he’s never been quite as vulnerable as he is in Paul at Home. The newest Paul book finds our hero in 2012, divorced, losing touch with his independent daughter, puttering around his house. He’s coping with sleep problems, depression, and his mother’s terminal illness. The book is a moving and blunt portrait of late middle age in the 21st century, and things aren’t great. I emailed with Rabagliati—with translation assistance from Julia Pohl-Miranda—about his distrust of technology, his love of fonts, and missing your children when they make their own way in the world.

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Slate: Other Paul books have made me admire you or feel sad for you or thrill to your exploits, but this is the first Paul book that made me worry about you. How are you doing?

Michel Rabagliati: I’m doing OK, thank you for asking. But I’m definitely still a person who is controlled by his emotions. I suffer from generalized cyclothymia. I have had to find ways to live with that, but now that I know what’s going on, my life is a little easier. And, after all, eight years have passed since my own separation.

What is cyclothymia, and how does it affect you?

Cyclothymia leads to radical and unpredictable mood swings or mood shifts. My mood and perspective on life can change multiple times over the course of a single day, from bright to dark in a few minutes! I go from wanting to sing aloud to wanting to die in the blink of an eye. It’s tremendously unsettling when it happens. These sudden mood swings can be brought on by a sad song, an old family photograph, or even just changes in barometric pressure. It’s interesting that although I’m alone in this pandemic moment, right now it feels like half the world is suffering from cyclothymia.

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How’s your sleep apnea?

Ha ha! I sleep with a CPAP machine now and I have to say, it’s extremely helpful for me. But my pride certainly took a hit! And there’s one other small thing I had to accept—gone are the days when I could go on overnight camping trips or sleep on a bench while traveling.

Paul hates the idea of dating apps and refuses a cellphone. The book is set in 2012, and already this attitude seems like something from the faraway past. Has your bad opinion of technology softened at all since then?

I’ve always been resistant when it comes to adopting new technologies. Even more so since the day in 1986 when I purchased my first Mac and realized just how much I’d been had. That was the moment I lost my peaceful career as a designer who worked by hand with paper, glue, drafting squares, and Rubylith and became someone who had to handle software headaches and computer hassles. That’s actually what made me return to comics—the chance to work by hand at a table.

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Have you gotten a cellphone?

Ha ha! This is a perfectly timed question. A friend gave me one three weeks ago! She was storing it in her fruit bowl after she upgraded. It’s a pink iPhone 5. I will admit there are some interesting applications, especially the transit one that tells me if the bus is coming soon!

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A cartoon of a middle-aged man standing with his arms folded
The author. Michel Rabagliati
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Paul is a font spotter, identifying typefaces in the wild and even getting annoyed when Canadian road signs switch from Highway Gothic to Clearview. What’s your absolute favorite font, and why?

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This question is very difficult to answer because every font has its place. Even Comic Sans is pretty when used for the proper purpose. But let’s say that for sans serif fonts, I have a soft spot for Gill Sans, and for serif fonts, I adore Mrs Eaves by Zuzana Licko.

Wait, what is the proper purpose for Comic Sans? It’s not comics, is it?

No, Comic Sans isn’t interesting enough to be used seriously in comics. Nowadays there’s a whole slew of fonts on the market that are specially designed for comics. It’s even possible to make a font based on any author’s lettering using specialized software like FontCreator or Fontographer. Personally, though, I have found Comics Sans to be perfect for a Dunder Mifflin birthday card.

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I have teenage daughters and I related to Paul’s worries about his 19-year-old, and his sadness that he rarely sees her. How has your relationship to your daughter changed over time? Is it tough to portray that in a comic?

In this book I wanted to illustrate what it’s like for a parent to see their child leave the family home. To me, there’s nothing sadder than the empty room after a child moves out. That said, it’s been a long time since my daughter, who’s 26 now, returned from England. She has an apartment not far from me in Montreal and is living her own life, which is great. The passage where Paul is looking at his daughter’s room, empty, with the posters she loved as a kid on the walls—that was one of the hardest for me to draw. But it seemed important to me to share it, to talk about it, if only to connect with other parents. Of course, when you add a recent divorce into the experience of your kid moving out, that loneliness just gets so much more difficult to manage. A word of advice: When your own kid leaves home, repaint the room and repurpose it as quickly as you can!

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You’ve alternated over the years between writing about your adult life—your life around the time of the writing—and looking back at stories from your childhood and younger years. As you get older, how does writing about your youth change? Does it get harder to access those memories of childhood, or are you more drawn to those bygone days?

I think I’m done with telling stories about Paul’s youth. To be quite frank, I don’t have anything else to say about the childhood or adolescence of this character. If I had been the child of an ambassador or a diplomat, maybe I’d have the material for more stories, but that’s just not the case. I was an ordinary boy from an ordinary working-class Canadian family, and I’ve plumbed all the corners of my life for stories to tell.

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What is the appeal of writing something as immediate as Paul at Home, which is working through middle-aged feelings and experiences that are very fresh?

That was the particular challenge of this book—how to tell a story that was so close to me in terms of time. Because of that I wanted to tell the story less through memory and anecdote, to ground it more in everyday reality. And even though the story takes place in 2012, my life has changed very little in the past eight years. I still live alone. The house still feels just as empty to me. The main difference is that my dog passed away in 2014, so I no longer have her for company. I lost my father not too long after my mother died, but I decided not to talk about that. I thought it would have been too much. I had no real hindsight or distance from the story this time, and it’s for that reason that the book was literally sad to write and draw. Semiconscious self-flagellation, certainly!

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In this comic Paul feels lonely and isolated after his divorce and spends a lot of time alone in his house. In 2020, we all feel lonely and isolated and spend a lot of time in our houses. What has your year of coronavirus been like?

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To be honest, for the first three months, I totally panicked! I asked neighbors who I didn’t even know very well to come for walks with me around the neighborhood, entirely as a way to avoid being alone. Solitude plus confinement plus being single was just too much for me! Since then, I’ve gotten used to it like everyone else has. I am still going for walks every day, but I’m doing it solo, while listening to the radio. I have another book project in mind, and that’s something that’s good for me.

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What’s the new book project? What part of Paul’s life are we going to read about next?

I am still digesting the release of this new book. I have to admit that there’s a lot of me in Paul at Home, that I feel more exposed and vulnerable than I expected I would. Working in autofiction, or in this case what amounts to autobiography, takes a toll, I realize now. Perhaps I’ve pushed the edge of my confidence and comfort zone too far. I don’t think I’ll put myself through such a painful exercise again. I am definitely going to go for something a bit lighter!

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